Christmas dinner stirs emotions in people, and it means vastly different things to people from different regions and backgrounds. Some Southerners celebrate the holidays with succulent pork roasts, whereas beef prime rib might take the spotlight in other areas. Whether you choose meat, poultry or seafood as the centerpiece of a Christmas dinner, tradition benefits from a light touch and fresh herbs. Cooking lighter brightens flavors and leaves your family and guests feeling the warmth of tradition, without the heaviness that typically accompanies it.
A whole roasted turkey looks spectacular on the table, but it is a challenge to cook perfectly. Dark leg and thigh meat takes longer to cook than does breast meat, so it makes sense to split up the bird. Ask the local butcher to separate the breast and split it in two and to separate the drumsticks from the breast meat. Liberally salt and pepper the turkey, and place the dark meat pieces in a roasting pan. Surround it with apples and halved oranges. Cook the breast meat in a separate pan. Remove the breast meat as soon as it reaches approximately 170 F, and keep it warm in a warming tray or wrapped in aluminum foil. When the dark meat finishes cooking, present the turkey, partially sliced on a decorative platter surrounded by the baked apples and fresh sprigs of rosemary.
Beef and pork roasts look and taste better with a crusty exterior. Coating the pieces of meat with a liberal amount of coarse kosher salt helps the browning process and seasons the meat. After the roast finishes cooking, transfer it to a platter and cover it with foil. Add water, broth or wine to the cooking pan and scrape up the drippings. Pour the liquid into a container, and place in the refrigerator or freezer. Wait about 15 minutes until the fat rises to the top of the container, and then skim it off completely. Put the liquid back into the pan, and reduce it by boiling it for about five minutes. Add a little red wine or brandy, and cook for another five minutes. Cut a few slices of the roast, and arrange the pieces and the rest of the roast on the serving platter. Surround the roast with sprigs of fresh rosemary. Put the sauce in a gravy boat next to the roast on the table, and serve.
Even kids tend to like vegetables baked into cheesy and crusty casseroles. Broccoli or cauliflower cooked briefly and then blended into a simple white sauce made out of butter, flour and milk along with shredded sharp cheddar cheese bubbles up nicely in a 350 F oven. Sprinkle breadcrumbs mixed with Parmesan cheese over the top before cooking for a crunchy brown top. Make variations of the dish by substituting out green beans and almonds for the other vegetables. Brussels sprouts, roasted in the oven until tender and then glazed with an orange juice and brown-sugar glaze, win over many Brussels-sprout-phobes. Top the Brussels sprouts with pecans, and serve.
Fruit-based desserts, such as apple or rhubarb pies, work well as finales for Christmas dinners. Gingerbread is a traditional treat and tastes even better topped with lightly sweetened whipped cream. Indian pudding, which is made from cornmeal and seasoned with ginger, molasses and cinnamon, cooks slowly in the oven and is a traditional New England dessert. Pears poached in white wine and a touch of mace make an elegant and light finish to the meal.